Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’

Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.

There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?

By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.

But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.

Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?

I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.

Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.

‘Slutwalkers’: a lesson from Beyoncé

Slutwalk is rearing its unfortunately-named head again, with more protests planned in the coming weeks. Whilst I would like to preface everything I am about to say by wholeheartedly agreeing with the statement that no-one ‘invites’ rape – it’s actually an oxymoron if you think about it – I have nevertheless been following this ‘movement’ with a deep sense of unease. I can’t help but feel this is a massive own goal for the girls.

To recap briefly, the theory the protest walks are meant to embody is that women should not have to accept as a given that dressing in a certain way (‘sluttily’) means some people will draw certain conclusions (they are ‘sluts’) and be more inclined to sexually assault them. The praxis is to dress sluttily, en masse, to prove that they can do it with no reference to the male gaze – to ‘reclaim’ the style for themselves.

First of all, I would question the honesty of the assertion that dressing sluttily makes any sense without reference to those for whose benefit it was ultimately invented. The adornment of the body has always been about sending out signals as to the identity of the wearer. To deny that is – as a now very unpopular Canadian Police Officer pointed out – naïve.

Secondly, I don’t understand why any woman would seriously want to ‘own’ that mode of dress – uncomfortable, chilly, and designed-by-men as it is.

Thirdly, how is this a wise strategy? What argument are they going to win? Will this actually deliver reduced instances of sexual assault? Somehow I just can’t see any rapist-in-waiting watching a slutwalk and thinking, ‘on the other hand, maybe I won’t.’ It all has the distinct feeling of having metamorphosed into an excuse for millions of women to revel in a slightly risqué activity, and assert their right – never really in question in the western world – to parade around wearing whatever they want.

But leaps-of-logic and poor strategising aside, ultimately, the most damage Slutwalk will do is to reduce feminism in popular/ media discourse to a discussion about the right to dress provocatively and not be raped. And once again, and which is only ever to the detriment of the feminist stance (shouting slogans is a crap way to win an argument) the tone is angry, defiant, and a bit whiny. How many men are on board with this, for the right reason? Tone is so important, and slutwalk is such an ugly word, and concept. No matter what the manifesto says, the shorthand is neither aspirational nor inspirational, and an unhelpful hyphen to feminism.

For a perhaps surprising moment of a woman beautifully expressing herself, witness Beyonce’s recent Glastonbury triumph. Leonine and athletic, she was pitch perfect and absolutely charmed the 180,000-strong crowd. Not because she was wearing what would quite accurately be described as a highly provocative outfit, but because she was a consummate professional, really mind-blowingly good, clearly happy in herself and delighted to be there, and genuinely doing it for the girls (rare in the male-dominated medium of pop). Although jumping around in tiny pants, the word slut didn’t come to mind: she was amazonian and golden. Watching her dance provokes the same kind of dumbfounded reaction as Jacko or Timberlake at their best. And transcending all of that hard-won skill was buckets of personality and talent. It was heartening to see and a refreshing moment for feminism. It’s not about what you look like, it’s about what you say and do.

Although the seeming popularity of Slutwalk should tell us that something – and perhaps not what is ostensibly being protested about – is amiss; by drawing our attention back to the clothes and the body, the movement does feminism a disservice. For the sake of progress, less stomping around in bras please, and more just carrying on with what most of us hopefully do anyway in our daily lives: set some kind of meaningful and helpful example to remind the world that female bodies have minds too.

Spoonerisms, Broadband and the Creative Industries

What an odd morning. Jim Naughtie, in a brilliantly Freudian spoonerism, managed to say the worst word in the BBC’s book live on-air whilst introducing Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary. And then the abovementioned Culture Secretary went on to speak at an event called ‘The Future of the Creative Industries’, in which the creative industries were barely discussed.

What was apparently happening, to the slight bemusement of some attendees (Crafts Council to my left, literary agent to my right), was the launch of ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’, a joint BIS and DCMS policy paper. Rather than discussing, as advertised by event host Reform, ‘his vision for the future of the creative industries’, Hunt explained the thinking behind the government’s plans for broadband rollout and upgrades.

In pondering the discussion afterwards, I was (still am) bemused as to how to analyse the announcements: on their merits as a plan for broadband rollout, or as the totality of the government’s vision for the future of the creative industries?

If it’s the first: I’m not an expert. Although I would say it looks like they are marginally prioritising spend on high-speed capacity for economic growth, rather than universal access – which is surely where the ‘Big Society’ emphasis would be.

If it’s the second: oh dear.

Digital accessibility is clearly relevant for many of the businesses and organisations that fall into the ‘creative industries’ bracket – in terms of reaching wider audiences, transacting and communicating online, exporting – and opens up other relevant questions for content producers, such as intellectual property protection in a digital environment. Joining Hunt on the panel, Peter Bazalgette (former chief creative officer at Endemol) mentioned more than once the notion that the new digital age presents a ‘challenge to the heritage business models of the content producing industries’ – which is probably the closest anyone came to addressing the topic as billed.

Whilst important, this is not the whole story for the future of creative businesses. To be clear, the current official list includes: Advertising, Art and Antiques, Architecture, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Film, Leisure software, Music, Performing Arts, Publishing, Software, TV and radio. These are not the only industries likely to be affected by faster internet.

What, if anything, does it signify that a discussion of the future for the creative industries revolved so narrowly around broadband capabilities? Because, although perhaps unintentionally, focussing on broadband as an economic enabler sends a very blunt message to those industries that can never be primarily digitally-based.

In short, it suggests that if it’s not music, media or broadcasting, its at best economically irrelevant, at worst, doomed.

In relation to that, Reform’s own narrow, media-focussed analysis of the Creative Industries in their recent booklet A Creative Recovery (see list of contributors here) was equally skewed. It now seems deliberately so to align with the forthcoming digital policy, or at least a ploy to persuade the Culture Sec to come and speak at a Reform event. A slightly Machiavellian approach and surely not one to earn them friends or credibility across the creative industries.

Perhaps they were just worried about the appeal of a discussion of this particular policy. The paper itself is a tad dry. Was this just a trick to lure ‘creatives’ into the room, bolt the doors, and then fill them with facts about IT infrastructure?

Or is this really all the government has to say on the future of the creative industries? Let’s hope not.

Whatever happened to Kings of Leon?

Why is it that greatness is rarely repeatable? Whatever the medium, artists, musicians, authors, so often seem to get trapped in a steady march towards a mainstream audience, and for some reason that also means mediocrity. What is it about the interplay of artistic endeavour and capitalism/ mass markets that results in such a sad dumbing down? Literally sad, because the arts, if they do anything, strive to affect people in deeply personal ways, thus fans of course have the capacity to feel personally let down by an artist they may have previously deeply identified with, or idolised. One such example is the rise and fall of Kings of Leon, who with each new single and album release dig a little deeper into nafness. Without wishing to sound like a music snob, why does ‘more accessible’ necessarily have to mean ‘less interesting’? I’m prepared to back this up with evidence.

The song Sex On Fire (2008) won Kings of Leon a Grammy award, suggesting it was beloved by many. But it’s arguably a much less interesting song than their very first single, which deals with a similar subject matter, Holy Roller Novocaine (2003). Here, the opening bars are full of stealth: some misdemeanour is about to happen. The lyrics are a little more obscure and far more poetic. They take time and care building the song, and it oscillates nicely between a quiet sexy lyric and some properly loud sections of unleashed exuberance. It’s also a more subtle channeling of their Pentecostal training ground (syncopated hand-claps, slightly biblical vocabulary, touches of guilt and subversion). Sex On Fire (not leaving much to the imagination with that title) goes almost straight to 100% belting-out and hovers there for the rest of the song, the only alternations being whether it’s verse or chorus. If these songs were lovers, I know which one I’d pick for a bedtime playmate.

To an observer, it looks as though they have lazily resorted to easy stadium rock, and probably because they’ve learned it earns them money. What made their early material so engaging, and perhaps less immediately palatable, was the violence of youth it expressed. They didn’t necessarily want to be loved. This is reinforced by Caleb Followill’s highly distinctive voice: surprisingly jaded, world-weary, mumbling at times, angry at others. Perhaps a tad naive, but also brilliant: the vitriol of young men. Accordingly, their first album was entitled ‘Youth and Young Manhood’. With growing older they have, only naturally, lost that edge, but without finding anything quite as good to replace it. They may be more polished, but they just seem lost.

Die-hard fans with a less critical ear may claim ‘it’s just progression’ (scroll down here from some particularly inarticulate defensiveness). It’s not inevitable though; ‘progression’ could be in any number of directions, and it’s hard to believe that whatever impetus drives them now is the same creative impetus that got them making music in the first place. If their output is a reflection of the course of their own lives, the grubby southern-fried backwater, prostitutes, brawls and young lust do of course make more unusual, if simply shocking, material than the calmness of maturity. If they now want to write songs about being in love and having meaningful sex in a long term relationship, and rediscovering their roots, that’s not necessarily a problem: but the way in which they’ve done it seems trite. It’s somehow less sincere, a less truthful investigation of their own motivations, than their youthful gusto.

I think Kings of Leon might know this, and it’s manifest in their new single, Radioactive – apparently written before their last two albums. In terms of subject matter, this sounds like an apology to their grandmother. Musically, there is some hope in the opening bars, but it’s quickly dashed by the earnestness of the main riff, and only two lines of lyric before they break into the crowd-pleasing chorus line. Again, peaked too soon. Ultimately, any rock band that has to resort to a backing choir must realise they’ve gone wrong somewhere, even if they are trying to get back to their gospel roots: literally using a gospel choir doesn’t seem a very sophisticated attempt. However, the music video is by far the most embarrassing thing about the song, which you can judge for yourself here. It’s not terrible – but the whole effort seems both musically lazy and conceptually strained. Which brings me back to my initial point – there was a natural genius in their early material, from which, with each renewed attempt to return, they’re only moving further away.